Seinsheimer's working floor (credit: Floyd County Library Special Collections)

When I (Wyatt) was a kid, maybe 11 or 12 years old, my mom, a glorious seamstress, took me to her work. She worked in a men’s suit factory, H.A. Seinsheimer Company, and was responsible for lapels and collars. The lady across from Mom, Vivian, made the inside shoulders. A lady next to Mom made sleeves. The fronts, and backs of the suit coat and pants were all there as well. 1 table. 1 suit at a time.

Reflecting back recently, Mom mentioned that they cut material from the same roll, and if someone at her table was out sick, the team jumped in, so the suit kept getting made. They understood the value of completing something.

Why This Story?

Recently, I’ve been in conversations discussing product flow. In these discussions, we tend to use descriptions like vertical stack vs horizontal components, cake slices vs. cake layers, value stream mapping, encapsulating dependencies, two-pizza teams, and the mental image that lands on folks of what a product team looks like is not as clear as it can be.

These discussions are challenging. Challenging because the mental models are not aligned with the communication, and more importantly, the client often does not look at the actual costs of the ways they work. And the frame of reference, in an actual sense, makes it highly unlikely they can see what is possible on the other side, even when the only thing needed is to optimize the way things are in small steps.

Change is difficult, even when folks want to change.

Vertical vs Horizontal

Breaking things down vertically is ordering a sandwich and getting something with bread and all the fixings inside. You might only get one kind of bread, one topping, but it’s a sandwich.

Breaking things horizontally gives you bread makers, vegetable cutters, meat slicers, toppings curators, dressing Czars, sandwich wrappers, and a cashier. It certainly optimizes for efficient utilization of your resources, but it ignores what makes you money, which is flowing the sandwich into the customer’s hands as soon as possible.

Horizontal organization usually allows us to answer a question: how can we be more efficient? Confusing that with the more necessary question: how can we delight our customers as soon as possible?

Product Team vs Component Team

Picking a product focus versus a component focus is an important decision, usually relegated to canonical thinking and habituated behaviors. If you work in a place that has component teams, all problems are solved with component teams. This is reality.

There are cases where component teams make sense. Credit card payment systems, for example, require extensive external validation. Putting a component team around that makes sense, as there are many forces outside the control of the organization.

That’s not a reason to do it in all situations. Most problems are made progressively worse by requiring disciplined communication channels when talking to each other within a team, which could be simpler, easier, and faster.

Change The Conversation

We think we understand the technical costs of one way of organizing vs. another, and we ignore the human impact, which, as Gerald Weinberg says, “It’s never a technical issue; it’s always a people issue.”

We justify this as “that’s how things are” or “that’s the cost of business,” but really, unless a conscious choice is made, you’re relying on habits. Habits Are Hard to Change. This is reality.

So, let’s not talk about change. Instead, let’s orient the conversation to the delivery of value. Then the conversation about teams, or even change, is not about how to organize them, but rather, what can we do to enable us to delight our customers more consistently?

As we instill a habit of completing suits rather than collars and lapels, we can then ask questions like:

  • Can we solve this problem vertically or horizontally? The answer can be either both or neither, and over time, your answers might include all of the above.
  • Can we measure value delivery in a way that’s been vetted? Yes, DORA is a great start, and often enough.

The good news is anything uncomfortable is an opportunity to find a better way. The bad news is it’s going to involve change.

Start looking at what impedes delighting your customers as soon as possible. Then, start solving those problems in small steps, one at a time.

I’m certain Mom would agree.